When Alan McSurely showed up for work at the Friendship Heights Post Office in Northwest Washington yesterday, he said, his coworkers began ribbing him. All through the Redskins-Detroit football game, someone would ask what he was really going to do with the $1.6 million that a U.S. District Court jury had awarded Friday to McSurely and his former wife, Margaret, both former antipoverty workers.
"I told them that most of the money was going back into 'The Movement,' " said McSurely, 46, during an interview at his modest garden apartment in Hyattsville yesterday. "They told me, 'Aw, man, you must be crazy.' "
It was in April 1967 that Alan and Margaret McSurely decided to get married and together organize coal miners in a rural Kentucky town called Pikeville. She had been a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and he was director of the United Planning Organization's suburban antipoverty effort.
Four months later, on Aug. 11, 15 armed Pike County deputies, led by Thomas B. Ratliff, a coal-mine owner who was also the district attorney, broke into the McSurelys' four-room mountainside shack and arrested them on sedition charges--attempting to overthrow the government.
By Dec. 13, 1968, after a U.S. District Court judge had ruled the Kentucky sedition law was unconstitutional, eight sticks of dynamite were tossed at their bedroom window.
The explosives bounced off the screen but still damaged their house, showering them and their year-old child with debris. They decided it was time to leave Kentucky.
"We were asleep but I heard the thud against the window screen--right where the baby was sleeping," recalled Margaret McSurely, who now works as a secretary at Georgetown University Hospital. "I feel great about the court decision. My feeling is that it was a strong statement to government officials about how people feel about their constitutional rights."
Says Alan McSurely, "When I try to explain to people what it was like down there, the best example is that television show where the guys ride around in a car with the Confederate flag on the door--'The Dukes of Hazzard.' That guy Boss Hogg really exists."
The McSurelys filed a lawsuit against Ratliff and the late U.S. senator John McClellan, who had obtained the documents that Ratliff had seized in the raid as part of his Senate subcommittee investigation of urban disorders during the l960s.
A six-member jury deliberated 2 1/2 hours after the conclusion of the six-week trial and found that Ratliff, McClellan and two of his aides had violated the couple's First Amendment rights of free speech and their right to privacy and violated Fourth Amendment prohibitions against illegal searches.
Ratliff, a millionaire, was assessed $1.2 million, including $920,000 in punitive damages. McClellan's estate was assessed $218,260 in compensatory damages while the estates of the two Senate aides were assessed nearly $190,000.
"We never expected it to be that much," Alan McSurely said. "It's going to take me three weeks to relax. We had a very intelligent and attentive jury, the heart of which were four black women in their 40s. We wanted people on the jury who remembered the 1960s."
And now his coworkers at the post office seemed to have had their memories jogged, too.
"They reminded me that I owe $25 to the coffee fund," he said.